Namaskar Y'all - 2017

Paradise Lost

By Shyama Parui

“Smoldering ruins." “Driving through hell." “Tunnel of fire." Can these words truly describe one of my favorite places in the whole world? And yet, a few weeks ago, wildfires engulfed the Smoky Mountains destroying acres and acres of forests bringing majestic trees down to their knees, filling soot into the crisp air, chasing out inhabitants and forcing its admirers to flee in panic.

As I heard the headlines, it pained me and I cannot even begin to imagine what it must have been like to actually be in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge or the Lake Lure area when the blazes were spreading rapidly. Denial took over and at first I refused to see pictures in a naïve attempt at avoiding reality. A piece of nature's paradise was lost.

All I want to keep with me are fond memories of places and experiences in the Smokies. My first weekend getaway in the United States was in romantic Yonahlossee with breathtaking views that enticed us back to the mountains of North Carolina over and over again. Hiking and walking across the mile-high bridge at Grandfather Mountain is always a hit with out of town guests. My children often mention their memorable field trip to Tweetsie Railroad, a vintage amusement park. That is not all; the bright colors of fall foliage inspire me along with millions of other visitors to become amateur artists and photographers. The healing power of a walk in the woods is something I have experienced without a doubt even though I cannot explain it. And in past years, when we drove through Gatlinburg glittering with Christmas lights, it kindled a truly merry, festive spirit around us. So, I am shocked and cannot even begin to fathom why some miscreants would deliberately start some of these forest fires.

We don't have the power to retain everything that is dear to us or to keep them in a perfect state. Regardless of what we want, we are compelled against our wishes to surrender to nature's forces as any one of its calamities can cruelly obliterate one of its own gifts.

Take the Outer Banks as an example, its unique beauty is frequently stripped away by hurricanes. But as human beings we too have become reckless with the earth that is in our care. Years ago, in 2008 to be precise we could see the beautiful wild horses of Corolla come close to the dunes with young foals grazing at a leisurely pace. Unhurried, I had watched these creatures in fascination, feeling like that very moment on the beach exemplified harmony between the ocean, humans and wildlife.

Fast forward to the summer 2015. The same stretch of Corolla was lined with endless rows of homes, the beach was overcrowded with lovers of loud music and the horses were nowhere to be seen. My suspicion was that they were repulsed by our kind of two-legged folks who drove them away from their habitat and were now charging a pretty penny to take visitors for a ride in ugly vehicles calling it “wild horse tours."

Driven by greed, shortsightedness or willful self-destruction, it appears like we are slowly and painfully eroding our resources. Sadly, this is not limited to any one part of the world. In India, too, some of the most amazing places have been impoverished by people's wanton disregard for the responsibility we have to preserve the gifts we have inherited. When it comes to our precious planet the consequences of our actions are not visible immediately. What seems harmless in the moment may morph into a disaster a decade from now and perhaps the solutions we have created today will become tomorrow's problems.

Paradise can be symbolic too – a haven from the drudgery of work, a sanctuary of memories, a shrine of the past era. The loss of a symbolic paradise can be just as hard to swallow as it hurts to give up your idealism or the familiarity of the place where you grew up. It has been years since I have visited the neighborhood I grew up in. I am almost afraid that if I go back the changes will seem overwhelming and while it may not erase them, it may ruin the rosy images of a time and place we cherished. Your heroes whether they are your mentors, celebrities or even your parents can fall, too. When we put them on a pedestal and hope for too much, we can be disappointed. It is worth reflecting and asking ourselves – when our idols don't live up to our expectations, is it their fault or ours?

In general, we all want to resist change and hold on to what is most familiar even if change is for a good reason. A case in point is the demonetization process in India that we have all probably heard of by now. Introduced as a drastic measure to reduce cash that is either undeclared or illegal, its short-term consequences have been hard on the common and the honest citizens and it will take some time before the benefits become apparent. Nevertheless, it has become the target of hilarious jokes, posts and videos circulating via social media highlighting the humorous side of all the inconveniences people are facing. Not everyone is laughing, of that I am certain.

Preserving what's truly valuable takes a lot of care and, not to mention, effort. But it is definitely rewarding. The analogy that comes to mind is that of the long, strenuous hike at South Mountain State Park. Often, you start with great enthusiasm but half way through fatigue takes over and you may want to give up. But if you persevere and reach the end, you are finally rewarded with a gorgeous view of the promised waterfall. As you stare in awe, the light mist cools you, rebuilds your excitement and you regain your energy. You realize that in the end, it was worth every drop of sweat.

So, my hope for 2017 is this, when we pass the baton to the next generation, let's hand them a paradise that holds even more treasures than ours did.